Letter Published in "Space News"

December 17, 2001

Remember Beal Aerospace?

It is unfortunate that I continue to read ill-informed comments about the reasons for our demise (Space News 11-12-2001, page 24). The real damage from these commentaries is that they mask the real issues and instill a sense that only NASA and DOD funded efforts can succeed. Our program would have resulted in a well-conceived, technically absolutely achievable, large lower cost launch vehicle. Our plan always included an ultimate evolution to re-usable first and second stages. We correctly targeted the alive and well geo-stationary market and additionally hoped for some space station resupply missions. We were naively lured into business by NASA’s constant remarks about wanting to encourage privatization and new launch service providers.

When Congress and NASA targeted $10 billion to fund competing launch systems, we threw in the towel. We simply could not compete with such government funded boondoggles.

NASA has apparently fooled Congress into thinking that significant new technology must be developed by the government funded aerospace community to achieve reliable low cost access to space. Congress responded with a $10 billion projected program for the next 10 years. The fact is that no new technology is required. Current technology can be used to build a low cost 2-stage reusable launch vehicle that meets all of NASA’s needs. Yes, it would be great to have more sophisticated fully reusable TPS systems and new airbreathing hypersonic propulsion systems, but these are not required to achieve low cost reusable access to space. Furthermore, their technology development should cost a fraction of $10 billion. NASA’s real goal is the subsidized development of a space shuttle replacement that will be privately operated and available for commercial use (read direct competition for any launch service provider). While this may be a worthy goal, it kills the prospects for start ups like Beal Aerospace. We suggested NASA and Congress make a commitment not to compete with efforts like ours.

Asking NASA to develop low cost space access is analogous to asking Amtrak to develop new low cost locomotives or the US Postal Service to develop new low cost electronic mail systems. Let’s all be thankful that Congress didn’t fund NASA to develop low cost personal computers to compete with Dell and Compaq and new low cost operating software to compete with Microsoft. With enough money, NASA will always succeed. The consequence of NASA’s success would be that Microsoft and “Windows” would not exist and some clunky NASA software package written by IBM would be the industry standard.

Incidentally, I was appalled that former NASA engineer Dennis Tito had to pay a foreign country to access the ISS. Let’s all be thankful that Congress never funded NASA to develop the automobile. If it had, I suspect that the use of these dangerous vehicles would be restricted to “autonauts” and we common citizens would revel that highly trained “autonauts” could operate these incredible high performance automobile machines.

I am sure that many will be offended by this letter. I expect an onslaught of opinions about how we could not possibly have succeeded and how only NASA and its contractors can build good rockets. Assertions that we closed our doors because of technical challenges or diminished demand are absurd. The fact is, there is plenty of business for a reliable low cost system. Low efficiency (but low cost) rockets are relatively easy to build and we would have demonstrated that.

NASA has changed the evolutionary process for new companies and tilted the playing field against private efforts. As a result there is no role for new launch service companies except as commodity subcontractors to NASA and its primes.

Andrew Beal